Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
Coronavirus is a mental health disaster zone. Some people fear a shortened life. Others have lost trust in the future. Many have uneasy feelings about people and places currently closed off to us. It’s a green light to anxiety and depression.
This is especially true for people who are already experiencing an unrelated trauma, or have recently endured one. Meanwhile, acute stress will cause PTSD.
Can history offer any consolations or advice? One of the first novels to take mental health seriously, Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov (1859), might be a helpful text.
Sometimes mocked as the story of a man in a dressing gown — a well-off type who can’t be bothered to get dressed — Oblomov is really a sympathetic, comic, moving and page-turning description of depression.
Ilya Ilich Oblomov, the eponymous hero of the novel, can never make progress in life, but then he never seems to want to. He falls into apathy or fearfulness, frustrating those who love him. Others take advantage and exploit him. But he retains the devotion of his servant, Zakhar, his lifelong friend Stolz, and the two women with whom he has relationships, Olga and Agafya.
The great Oleg Tabakov (1935-2018) performed the title role when the book was filmed in 1980. There is a scene where Stolz and Oblomov are in the banya, out at the country estate, laughing together, before Oblomov starts to weep. Stolz recognizes the signs of a sudden switch in mood and descent to depression but has no way of helping his friend. He can only embrace him. All of Tabakov’s emotional range — from vivacity to confusion to misery — passes across his face in an unforgettable moment.
Last year, a new and brilliant Oblomov premiered at Moscow’s Mayakovsky Theatre. Performances are, of course, currently suspended. The production excluded Stolz and focused instead on the book’s two other central relationships: the comic mutual dependence of Zakhar and Oblomov, and the tender love that develops between Oblomov and Olga. Oblomov is slowly defeated by himself. He can’t bring the relationship to its natural destination, marriage. This creates awful unhappiness for both himself and Olga. Oblomov is unable to accept his own worth or potential, or see himself as someone able to inspire love in others.
What’s the point of Oblomov during a devastating pandemic? Even for Russians, the cultural canon is of no immediate use during a public health emergency. But Oblomov opens our eyes to another person’s mental health at a time when our own might be under pressure. And it makes a promise to the future — old books and films endure, theatres will reopen, routes between cities will be restored.